Words and pictures by Armelle Burke
South America conjures up images of epic pow, dramatic landscapes and extraordinary cultures – as well as the chance to shred all summer. But to a regular Alpine seasonaire, actually heading down to do a season in this wilder part southern hemisphere can seem a bit bewildering. What’s it like? Where do you go? What do you do? Is it hard to find work down there? But while there are challenges like this that must be overcome, for those willing to look past these difficulties, the rewards are well worth the effort. At least that’s what Armelle Burke, who spent two epic seasons in Argentina, reckons. Here she shares some of her experiences…
Spring sun is shining in the mountains, brilliant blue skies and endless white vistas entice those living in the Alps on to the slopes to enjoy the last of an amazing winter season. Warm days and slushy snow clear away the cobwebs from the previous evening’s antics. The après sessions. The fancy dress pub-crawls for the end of season parties. The free drinks served for an energized night that lasts into the early hours of the morning. Everyone going that extra mile when they’re out because they know the end is coming.
Soon enough the melting snow will mean the winter dream is over. Yet just as we are preparing for long summer nights, on the other side of the world darkness is drawing in as winter falls on the southern hemisphere. And a dedicated few will be following it down there. For those curious of what it would be like to try a ski season in Argentina, read on, as what one will find on offer is a far cry from the escapist snow lifestyle in the Alps. Be prepared for a whole different experience.
As you enter the remote Argentine mountain towns in search of that fresh summer pow you are met by a land like no other. With a landscape dominated by epic volcanic mountain terrain and with local people rich in charm and culture you will feel like your ultimate dream has just come true. From the arid deserts in the north to the glaciers in the south, the sheer size of Argentina means there are immense changes in the environment. Distances between any town and city are vast, leaving one with a sense of absolute, almost eternal space. It’s a space consisting mostly of flatlands that eventually ends abruptly on the western edge of the country. A towering wall of Mountains breaks the horizon. This dramatic change in landscape is the signature of the Andes – the range that stretches some 7000km across the entire length of South America, and make up the border between Argentina and Chile.
Within this mass of mountains there are only twelve small ski resorts. Enormous distances separate them giving each one a unique charm. The northern and southern resorts differ massively in terms of terrain. In the North you have dry resorts like ‘Las Lenas’ with little vegetation. In contrast ‘Ushuaia’ the world’s most southerly ski resort sits on the southern tip of the country. Only 20km from the sea, it boasts some of the best snow conditions in Argentina. Environments and snow conditions vary dramatically from each resort meaning that one day it could be dry in the South whilst dumping in the North and the next day vice-versa. Dumps can disappear over night leaving a lush environment flourishing with beautiful enchanted forests laden with bamboo plants and magic lake vistas. These views are truly out of this world!
Unlike Europe there is no real seasonaire lifestyle in Argentina. Employees of the mountains get no discounts on lift tickets, no free ski hire, and no free drinks in bars. In Argentina locals are just glad for any job there is on offer. It would thus be difficult to set off to do a season in Argentina without money already set aside to put into the adventure. If you are lucky enough to find work within the mountains then that could give access to the rich local culture which, otherwise, could be harder to penetrate.
Away from the tourist haunts the mountain is full of locals as, fortunately, there is a resident ski pass. The residents pass is essential to the Argentine ski industry as it allows local talent to flourish and keeps the vibe on the hill real. Away from the crowds of tourists on the pistes, the local community of snow lovers thrives on the mountain and is full of style and talent. Compared to the northern hemisphere the snow industry is miniature, but among the locals are talented and proactive people making every effort to promote the snow community and put Argentina on the map. The Argentine kids in particular are passionate about their industry and keen to help it flourish.
Argentina’s first snowboarding magazine ‘Kommunidad Snow’, a free production, now in its second year, promotes up-and-coming Argentine talent and already has a huge following. The magazine is a good source of information on the snow scene, both on and off the mountain. As well as the magazine there are local brands such as Duke, an Argentine ski/snow clothing brand proud to be 100% Argentine. They sponsor a score of local riders. However, apart from local labels like Duke, most snow related materials are imported into Argentina, meaning kit can be very expensive.
Snow parks, which were non-existent until recently, are now a feature in most resorts, even if they are on the small side. Local dude Josh Lampard has tackled the difficult task of creating a snow park in Argentina from ‘snow grinds’ in Cerro Catedral. Josh’s determination to create a decent park in Argentina has helped him deal with the problematic aspects of taking on such a task in a developing country. He shapes his kickers in an oldskool cat with a smashed windscreen! Josh was expecting six new snow cats to work with last season, but the cats were impounded by Argentine customs on arrival in the country and never made it to the ski resort. Against all odds, Josh has still managed to make a successful park with 3 giant kickers, rails and boxes for riders to jam on allowing companies like Rip Curl to hold contests. The park has attracted pros like Andy Finch who enjoyed hitting a jump over the park hut whilst an ‘Assado’ – an Argentine meat feast – was devoured below.
As well as the park, last season Josh built Cerro Catedral’s first boardercross track so many of the Olympic teams were able to travel to Argentina and train for the 2010 winter games. It is through the commitment of people like Josh and the local enthusiasts that ensures the development of Argentina’s growing snow scene.
And then of course there’s the powder – and it’s this that really attracts pros and tourists alike to Argentina every summer. And yes, when it’s on, it’s as good as you’ve heard it is. With only 12 resorts in 7000 km of mountains, there’s almost endless backcountry to explore. Plus there’s the added thrill of things like riding down the sides of active volcanoes to get you going…
Overall, Argentina is a fascinating country with much more to offer than just snow lifestyle. Unlike Europe, it’s really for those who have dedicated their lives to snow or for the serious traveler. The initial task of setting yourself up for a season in Argentina is challenging. It can take some time for all the elements of a decent lifestyle to come together. However, once things are set, living in Argentina is a thoroughly rewarding cultural experience. And this, coupled with shredding in a country blessed with incredible views and landscapes beyond one’s wildest imagination, makes it pretty damn special. For anyone wishing to set off for a season of summer riding in Argentina, it is refreshing change from Europe and a worthy visit for any true snow explorer and lover of life. I’d recommend it to anyone!
Argentina: 10 things you should know before you go
1. There are only 12 ski resorts in Argentina. However this ensures less crowds and more fresh tracks.
2. Backcountry tours can be taken on with local or foreign guides and many companies from the northern hemisphere like ‘South America Snow Sessions’ who are establishing themselves in Argentina where professional snowboarders such as Chris Coulter and Andrew Burns lead backcountry snow camps.
3. Jobs in the Argentine ski industry are sparse and kept for locals so finding work is difficult.
4. A decent command of Spanish is pretty much essential for working in Argentina.
5. Lift passes in resorts are expensive at around $50 USD a day, but it is possible to live really well in Argentina on about $20 USD a day and costs can be even lower once you have established yourself. (Food and beer is also cheap from the local supermarket)
6. Ski and board hire is pricey and choice limited so it would be wise to come with your own board or skis if you are intending to do some serious mountain activities.
7. The first snow park in Argentina was recently built in the resort of Cerro Catedral. With 3 giant kickers, rails and boxes for riders to jam on allows companies like Rip Curl to hold contests. The park has attracted pros like Andy Finch.
8. In all resort towns there are plenty of hostels and hotels where rooms cost around $10 USD for a night. For people intending to spend an entire season in one resort it would be better to get a room in a house which is fairly easy at around $400 USD a month.
9. Resort environments and snow conditions will vary dramatically. It could be dumping in the northern resorts whilst the south has no snow and vice versa.
10. Argentina is home to the highest point of the Southern hemisphere with “Aconcagua” at 6962m in altitude.